Saturday, October 18, 2014

Anne Hills – Tracks

Hand & Heart Music

On the appropriately named Tracks, Anne Hills turns her beautiful voice and highly skilled songwriter’s pen to songs about trains and people whose lives are affected by them. Like almost all of Anne’s solo albums and her many collaborative efforts, Tracks – with nine of Anne’s songs and four well-chosen covers – is filled with gorgeous singing and seemingly simple yet elegantly perfect acoustic arrangements.

Listening to this album, and particularly the third track, “Transcontinental” I was reminded of the late, great Doc Watson’s intro to a train song decades ago when he said that trains and the railroads were the most written about subject in folk songs. “Transcontinental” is a kind of theme song for the theme. Anne sings in the first-person but from the perspective of a train and ancillary components like the tracks of the role of trains in history, stories and songs. “You use me as a metaphor in song/ I’m romantic but I’m known for moving on/ bringing music, clowns and circuses to town/ and my cars roll by like verses in a ballad ten miles long.”

Among the highlights of Anne’s original material is the album opening “San Luis Valley Song,” a vivid account of a train ride through the San Luis Valley in Colorado just ahead of the seasons change that will bring in winter. Others include “I Rode ‘Em All, Man,” obviously inspired by the country song “I’ve Been Everywhere,” which kind of does for trains what “I’ve Been Everywhere” does for places; “The Littlest Hobo,” about a dog that rode the rails in the company of hobos (something Bruce “Utah” Phillips wrote about decades ago in “Queen of the Rails”); and “Maria Took the Train to Town,” a striking character study of a homeless woman.

Among the four cover songs, I particularly like Anne’s version of Michael Smith’s “Ballad of Dan Moody,” a song about train robbers in the Old West sung from the perspective of Dan Moody, a friend “who recently found Jesus.” Moody gives up his friends to the sheriff’s deputies only to see them murdered. There is also an excellent rendition of David Massengill’s “Rider on an Orphan Train,” the sad story of two young orphaned brothers who never each other again after they were split up for adoption.

The album ends with “Fallen Flag,” almost a sequel to “Transcontinental,” another beautiful song in which the train observes the passage of time and history from the first railroads to the present.

Working with co-producer, engineer and accompanist Don Richmond, Anne has made some great additions to that most written about subject in folk songs.

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--Mike Regenstreif

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